Land purchase funds dwindling; infusion of state money unlikely
Gary Crandall, Nature Conservancy
SALT LAKE CITY — A state account to help preserve Utah's farmlands and other open spaces through private and collaborative efforts faces a third straight year without an infusion of state cash and no prospect of making additional land buys.
With Utah's financial pulse regaining a steady beat and as much as $191 million in one-time money up for grabs this legislative session, supporters of the LeRay McAllister conservation fund were hopeful they'd get state money to leverage for new projects.
At the very least, they thought lawmakers would follow Gov. Gary Herbert's budget recommendation of putting $200,000 in the fund, which would boost it to a balance of $800,000 and be enough to keep the program alive, although not enough to seek out new land to purchase and protect from development.
With three days left to go this session, any new money for the fund remains in limbo — despite a push for $2 million in one-time money to help get its efforts back on track.
Senate Budget chair Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, warned Monday that any money that may have been available has quickly evaporated.
"I still have people floating around with ideas of how to spend money," he said. "Frankly, there is no money."
John Bennett, executive director of the Utah Quality Growth Commission — which oversees the fund — said the value of the LeRay McAllister program has been that it takes that initial infusion of state money and builds on it by securing matching funds.
Since its inception in 1999, $20 million in state spending has garnered $191 million in private and public matching funds.
When the Utah Legislature created the Utah Quality Growth Commission, the fund was authorized at a level of $6 million in annual appropriations, but it has never been funded to that level.
The highest contribution of state dollars was in 2005 at $3.3 million, but since 2009 the funding has eroded, and in the past two years, the state has not kicked in any money.
It's been frustrating for groups like the Utah office of The Nature Conservancy, which is one of the organizations that pitches in money to match state efforts on projects.
"The $200,000 was a recommendation of the Outdoor Industry Association and the Outdoor Recreation Vision of the governor's office, which really stepped forward to answer some of their requests and concerns," said Dave Livermore, the organization's state director.
The fund, named for longtime Utah state legislator LeRay McAllister, is used to purchase conservation easements in which private land owners are compensated for their commitment to forgo development on their property.
So far, 80,000 acres have been protected through 92 projects in 19 of Utah's 29 counties.
One component of the program is setting aside lands for watershed protection and enhancements, for example, that keep upper mountain rangeland and farmlands from being transformed into cabin lots or subdivisions.
"When we think of the watershed in Salt Lake County, we tend to think of it terms of the canyons, but only one-third of our water comes from those canyons; the rest of it comes from the Weber and Provo basin in Summit and Wasatch counties on private land," Bennett said.
While development may be suitable for certain swaths of land, Bennett said the larger question becomes the extent of the development, its ultimate impact to the watershed and how much value is placed on sustaining farmlands for the future.
In the context of the debate over federal control of lands in Utah, Bennett said people would be surprised to learn of the deep local interest in setting aside private property to conserve it for its watershed value, agricultural use or recreational purpose.
"There are a group of landowners who have been good stewards of the land and they want to continue to be good stewards," he said. "They see their property of having value beyond development."
Both Bennett and Livermore are holding onto hope that lawmakers will at the very least endorse Herbert's recommendation in the waning hours of the session.
"It will never cost less to conserve our lands and water, and as far as efficiency and funds well spent, it will have paid dividends for many generations to come," Livermore said.